Illustration: Simon Letch
On Sunday, the Gary Morgan poll predicted the election would end in a hung parliament. The previous Wednesday it forecast a comfortable Labor victory. Pollsters are in the business of making predictions. Commentators, on the other hand, are well advised to avoid soothsaying.
This time around, even those who analyse the polls seem confused. Take Andrew Catsaras, whose views are published in The Australian Financial Review and who appears regularly on Meet the Press, Radio National Breakfast, and ABC2 News Breakfast. Last Sunday on Channel Ten, Catsaras declared Tony Abbott "is the best thing the Liberals have got going for them, but he is also probably the worst thing the Liberals have got going for them". It's that kind of election.
The available evidence indicates Labor is ahead overall but the Coalition is doing well in marginal seats in the outer suburban and regional areas of NSW and Queensland. Labor appears to be strong in Victoria and the Coalition in Western Australia.
Since it is likely the three independents in the House of Representatives - Bob Katter (Queensland) and Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor (NSW) - will retain their seats, it makes sense to discuss the possibility of a hung parliament.
The last time the Commonwealth had a hung parliament was in 1940. It was not a pleasant experience.
Joseph Lyons, the United Australia Party prime minister, died in office in April 1939. The UAP had no deputy leader at the time and the Country Party's Earle Page was sworn in as prime minister. Later in the month, Robert Menzies was elected UAP leader and became prime minister.
Menzies led the UAP-Country Party government to the polls in September 1940. The Coalition won 36 seats, the ALP 32 seats and the breakaway Lang Labor group four seats. There were two independents - Arthur Coles and Alexander Wilson, both of whom came from traditional non-Labor seats in Victoria.
Menzies lost the confidence of a majority of his supporters in August 1941 and stepped down as prime minister. A similar fate was experienced by Billy Hughes in 1923, John Gorton in 1971, Bob Hawke in 1991 and Kevin Rudd this year.
The Country Party's Arthur Fadden took over from Menzies as prime minister. However, political instability continued and in October 1941, the independents Coles and Wilson dumped the Coalition and switched their support to Labor. John Curtin became prime minister and went on to win the 1943 election. The Curtin Labor government provided the political stability that had been lacking during the previous year.
There were many reasons for the political failure of the first Menzies government. However, the inability of the Coalition parties to win the seats gained in 1940 by Coles in Melbourne and Wilson in the Wimmera ensured the Menzies government's poor performance.
If Abbott falls just short of an absolute majority, his position will not be dissimilar to that experienced by Menzies in 1940. In the current parliament, the three independents all hold seats once in the National Party's possession. Katter split with the Nationals while Oakeshott and Windsor gained seats once held by National Party identities Mark Vaile and Ian Sinclair respectively.
If Julia Gillard falls just short of an absolute majority, she will probably have to deal with the independents.
Alternatively, a re-elected Labor government may be able to deal with one or more members of the Greens, if that party wins a seat or seats in Melbourne and Sydney.
It is likely the independents would deal with both the Coalition and Labor. But it is unlikely the Greens would deal with the Coalition. This underlines the magnitude of the mistake the Liberal Party has made in preferencing the Greens ahead of Labor in the seats of Melbourne, Sydney and Grayndler (all of which the Greens could possibly win on Liberal preferences).
It makes no sense for the Liberals to facilitate entry into Parliament of Greens politicians, who are well to the left of Gillard Labor on economic, foreign and social policy.
In his disappointingly flat and unoriginal report on 60 Minutes on Sunday, Mark Latham commented that "in all likelihood Senator Bob Brown and his Green Party will control the next Parliament". This is an exaggeration. The Greens can only exercise a balance of power role in the Senate if they have the support of the opposition of the day (whether Coalition or Labor). But it's possible, just possible, the Greens could have a say in determining the circumstances under which Gillard could form a government.
In such an eventuality, the Greens would have the capacity to push Labor to the left. Such an outcome would be deleterious to the nation as a whole. Moreover, it would not be in the long-term interests of the Liberal Party to carry the responsibility for putting Brown and his colleagues at the centre of government - especially since the Liberals do not receive any Greens preferences.
The traditional Liberal support base is closer to the modern Labor Party than to Brown and his regulatory disciples.
The independents are not of the same mind. However, Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor give the impression of favouring greater government intervention in the economy along with special protection of, and assistance to, primary and secondary industries in their electorates.
Both Gillard and Abbott would be able to negotiate with the independents. Yet such negotiation would invariably make the task of further economic reform even more difficult than it currently is. A hung parliament would make for interesting politics, but not good government.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.